Seeing Spots: Flashes and Floaters

What Caus­es These Visu­al Dis­rup­tions and When to Seek Care

The term floater” refers to dark spots or strings that appear in your vision which shift when you move your eyes or when you attempt to focus. Floaters may be more notice­able when you’re look­ing at a sol­id, bright back­ground like a wall or the sky. In some cas­es, floaters are harm­less; how­ev­er, if you expe­ri­ence peri­od­ic flash­es of bright light that tem­porar­i­ly dis­rupts your vision, it may be a sign of a more seri­ous issue. These visu­al flash­es and floaters can devel­op due to a vari­ety of rea­sons including: 

  • When the jel­ly-like vit­re­ous flu­id in your eyes begins to break down as you age. This occurs dur­ing a rel­a­tive­ly com­mon, harm­less process called vit­re­ous synere­sis, start­ing between the ages of 55 to 60.
  • After a pos­te­ri­or vit­re­ous detach­ment (PVD), which is anoth­er com­mon age-relat­ed change. Unlike with vit­re­ous synere­sis, dur­ing a PVD, the vit­re­ous actu­al­ly becomes sep­a­rat­ed from the reti­na. PVD is not nec­es­sar­i­ly dan­ger­ous, how­ev­er, in some cas­es, more seri­ous com­pli­ca­tions can occur. If you expe­ri­ence symp­toms of a PVD includ­ing larg­er floaters and more per­sis­tent flash­es of light, it’s impor­tant to be seen by a reti­nal spe­cial­ist as soon as possible.
  • Fol­low­ing a reti­nal tear or a reti­nal detach­ment which may devel­op for a vari­ety of rea­sons. In some cas­es, with a PVD, as the vit­re­ous gel sep­a­rates, it can tear or detach the reti­na. It can also occur as a long-term com­pli­ca­tion of near-sight­ed­ness (myopia) or fol­low­ing an eye trau­ma or surgery.
  • Due to a hem­or­rhage or blood leak­age with­in your reti­na. Flash­es may devel­op if the leak­age pulls on the reti­na and/​or tears a blood ves­sel with­in your eye. Chron­ic health con­di­tions such as dia­betes can also weak­en blood ves­sels over time, caus­ing them to leak. In many cas­es, small­er hem­or­rhages will heal on their own, while larg­er, per­sis­tent ones may require surgery.
  • An infec­tion or increased inflam­ma­tion in your eye(s) can lead to flashes.
  • Tumors of the eye, while less com­mon, can cause visu­al disruptions.

While flash­es or floaters may devel­op due to rel­a­tive­ly com­mon age-relat­ed changes with your eyes, it’s impor­tant to con­sult with an oph­thal­mol­o­gist right away to deter­mine their cause and begin treat­ment if need­ed. If left untreat­ed, over time, minor tug­ging on your reti­na can cause a tear or com­plete detach­ment, which is con­sid­ered a med­ical emer­gency. If this hap­pens, you will need to have surgery in order to repair your reti­na and pre­serve your vision.

You shouldn’t wait for flash­ers, floaters or oth­er vision changes to devel­op to start car­ing for your eyes. You can help to main­tain your eye health and vision by: 

  • Fol­low­ing a bal­anced diet that includes eye-healthy nutri­ents like lutein, omega‑3 fat­ty acids and vit­a­min A. Foods rich in lutein include dark, leafy greens such as spinach and kale. Omega‑3 fat­ty acids can be found in fish includ­ing tuna, trout and hal­ibut. You can also boost your vit­a­min A intake with car­rots, sweet pota­toes and liver.
  • Quit­ting smok­ing. It increas­es your risk of devel­op­ing mac­u­lar degen­er­a­tion as you age.
  • Receiv­ing an annu­al eye exam, espe­cial­ly if you have a fam­i­ly his­to­ry of an eye dis­ease or chron­ic health con­di­tions like high blood pres­sure or diabetes.
  • Wash­ing your hands before putting in or tak­ing out your con­tact lens­es to reduce your risk of devel­op­ing an infection.
  • Wear­ing pro­tec­tive eye­wear when par­tic­i­pat­ing in sports, oper­at­ing heavy machin­ery or when com­plet­ing home improve­ment projects.
  • Wear­ing sun­glass­es when­ev­er you are out­side to pro­tect your eyes against dam­ag­ing UV light exposure.

If you notice new floaters, an increase in floaters, sud­den flash­es of light or dark­ness in your periph­er­al vision, you should be seen by an oph­thal­mol­o­gist right away. While these symp­toms may be pain­less, they may sig­nal a reti­nal tear or detach­ment which requires imme­di­ate attention. 

If you have been expe­ri­enc­ing changes with your vision, espe­cial­ly new or wors­en­ing flash­es or floaters, it’s impor­tant not to delay treat­ment in order to pre­serve the health of your eyes and vision. Sched­ule an appoint­ment with an oph­thal­mol­o­gist online or by call­ing your pre­ferred location.

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